An Artist Date at the Museum

A few months ago I moved to Sacramento and one of the first outings I made was to the Crocker Art Museum. Right now there is a fantastic exhibit of Norman Rockwell paintings and I have already seen the exhibit twice in less than a week. Wow!


We think of Norman Rockwell’s paintings portraying the spirit of true Americana, with charm and humor, sadness and strength, capturing moments in our lives and history with such clarity that it stops us in our tracks, making us smile, laugh, feel tenderness and awe.

But I got more than that from seeing Rockwell’s body of work in this exhibit,


I was struck by Rockwell’s use of color.

To be more specific his use of working with a limited color palette. It reminded me of early renaissance paintings, when the palette was predominantly red (vermillion), yellow (ochre), and blue (azurite)  because of the limited access to pigments in that time period.

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Altar of Archangel Michael, Gerard David 1510

That particular warm bright red which Rockwell seems to use in a large body of his work is striking.



I thought it was also interesting to see this reference to the dutch masters, through composition and color.


Sunmaid Raisins ad by Norman Rockwell, The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer

And his being influenced by his contemporary, fellow artist, Maxfield Parrish,


Christmas Eve in Bethlehem by Norman Rockwell

who was known for his amazing way of creating images that literally glowed with warm light.

Jack and the Beanstalk by Maxfield Parrish

Jack and the Beanstalk by Maxfield Parrish


I found Rockwell usually used between one and three primary colors dominantly in his palette; vermillion red, golden yellow, and cobalt blue or pthalo green. One of the benefits of working with a limited palette in this way is that the areas with strong pure hues draw the viewers eye to the places the artist wants to give emphasis to in an otherwise subdued neutral image.


In this painting Rockwell is using two complimentary colors; vermillion red and pthalo green as the predominant colors, the rest of the palette is muted and fairly neutral.

Red visually comes forward in space, so that color immediately grabs your attention and your eye moves from the heart, (the focus of the action), to her hat, the patterning in the boys sweater, the book in his pocket, the paint can, and back up to her pants again making a complete circle of the canvas. This technique keeps the viewers eye constantly moving around the space, something you ideally want to achieve with your work.

I think sometimes we feel compelled to use every color in the paint box and because of this we may inadvertently reduce the overall impact of our work. I know this lesson from Mr Rockwell will be on my mind when I’m working in the future.

19 Responses to “An Artist Date at the Museum”

  1. Ruth says:

    I enjoyed this post very much. To me it was a very clear lesson in art and I liked the way you presented it. Will plan to re-read many times. Thank you.

  2. Terry W says:

    i too was struck by the Rockwell exhibit – i had never realized what a strong artist he really was until I saw the paintings apart from the magazine covers. And wow, what a productive artist!

    • This man could definitely paint, he is truly an artist, but often considered an illustrator, which in my mind does not diminish the work in any way, but I know in some circles it might. The exhibit is extensive, it didn’t include all his work but it had many of the really significant pieces.

  3. Karen D says:

    I enjoyed this, too. I noted down the colors you mention and will try to use them in my journal in the way you described.

  4. Rowan says:

    Thanks Judy. This is really helpful. I thought I was suffering from using a limited palette, this completely reframes that notion.

  5. Bee says:

    Great post! Norman Rockwell has long been one of my favorite artists. I also love his use of color. I have never been fortunate enough to see an exhibit of his works so I appreciate your sharing!

  6. Thank you Judy, I really enjoyed the post and loved the way you wrote about the paintings.

  7. Regina Dunn says:

    I never noticed the similarities between Rockwell and Parrish before but I definitely see it now. Parrish is one of my favorite artists because of how he used light. By the way, there is a bar in San Francisco called Maxfield’s because it has a mural on the wall by Maxfield Parrish. I’ve never seen it, but someone told me about it. Thanks for the art lesson. You chose good examples for it.

    • Thanks Regina, I wasn’t aware of it either until I saw so much of Rockwell’s work at once, it was really eye opening. When I was looking at Parrish’s work to find a good example I also saw a humorous painting he did mimicking Rockwell, so they must have been friends.

  8. Marken says:

    What an interesting post. You have pointed out facets of Rockwell’s work I have never noticed. Thank you very much.

  9. Reed says:

    I agree with the commenters. A great observation. Thanks for such a clear description of what you saw, and for sharing it with us all.

  10. Judith says:

    I went to see the Rockwell exhibit here in the DC area and was fascinated by it. However, I didn’t notice his use of color and really enjoyed your putting it all together with pictures. BTW, you mention “her pants” in the last picture. We didn’t wear pants much back in those days. I bet that’s a skirt?

  11. Laura Tawney says:

    Great post! I went back and looked at all of the pictures again and to really take note of how the color was used and how your eye traveled around. When I went back and took note of the archangel one I really noticed how my eye did not travel as much to the picture on the right as much as the other two paintings. Also in the Sunmaid Raisins painting what was it in your opinion that made that painting stand out? One of my favorite painters is also Parrish and the use of light in his paintings.

    • Hi Laura, thanks! It wasn’t so much that anything stood out in the raisins painting, what I was drawing attention to was Vermeer’s influence in the style and composition of the painting.

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